Ian Dallas of Giant Sparrow was the creative director of The Unfinished Swan, a truly unique game that piques our curiosity and challenges us to consider just how wild and strange our own world is. We chatted with Ian about what motivated him to create The Unfinished Swan, games as spiritual experiences, and the value of community.
What inspired you to make The Unfinished Swan?
It started as a graduate student project where I had an idea for a really basic mechanic. Every week in grad school, I would come up with a new prototype and bring it into this fellowship that I was in where I would show this professor what I was working on that week. I was interested in how players move around a space and one week I thought, what if you were in a white world and you were throwing black paint around? The game itself really evolved out of what it felt like to be in that white room throwing paint around. For me it was the sense of curiosity and wonder that you get from that, and that is also something that I am really interested in other areas of life–the avenues of curiosity, wonder, and discovery. Unfinished Swan seemed like a great way to dig into those themes.
So it really began with this very simple mechanic but it evolved in a much less concrete way in terms of how do we explore this feeling of being totally lost and having the tools to explore your environment.
I am curious, were there any children’s books that were influential to you in the development of the game?
Yeah that was something that I looked into after a couple of months of thinking about how I could create something that evokes this sense of wonder. I started reading a lot of children’s books because they did a really good job of plumbing those same emotions. Certainly from my own childhood several stories were influential: Alice in Wonderland and Shel Silverstein were influential. Alice in Wonderland is probably the beacon in terms of the tone we were going for. Another thing that I like about Children’s books is things that get to the point quickly. So I like even classic people like Homer who are very on target. Shel Silverstien does a great job of getting to the point quickly by writing these poems that are very intimate but also very strange.
Did you read Harold and the Purple Crayon?
Yeah there is a bit of Harold and the Purple Crayon [in The Unfinished Swan] and there is also a bit of another book by Crockett Johnson called The Magic Beach that no one ever talks about but it is a fantastic short story about two kids that discover that they can write things on a beach and then it appears to them in the real world. And in The Magic Beach, the water comes in and washes everything away eventually. The Unifinished Swan has a similar take on things. You know we create these things in our lives that are really interesting and meaningful to us but we have to accept that eventually all these things will be washed away. So in all these things there is a theme of creation that will eventually be washed away. It’s very visceral for children because they are into crayons and playing with stuff, but for adults, we are not as concrete about the things that we are creating.
Are you a father?
No. Not yet.
I ask because when I played The Unfinished Swan, I thought about my daughter and how much I look forward to one day playing it with her. The game seems uniquely suited for parents to play with their children, though I suppose the first level is somewhat disorienting.
One of the things that we found with Unfinished Swan is that when people who played it who had never payed a first person shooter before and it definitely takes them longer to get through but they have all gotten through. I think there is a feeling of satisfaction from mastering the challenge of these controls because you are free to do so without the threat of being attacked and there is no time pressure.
One of the things we have been pleasantly surprised to hear is the number of people who have finished the game with their children or their spouses or people who don’t tend to play games. We are really proud that it worked well as a second player experience. That wasn’t something we explicitly designed for but we are really happy that the game seems to lend itself to that.
Yeah that must be really satisfying. I played it with my wife. She will play games when I twist her arm, but its not something she gravitates to. Once she got over the hurdle of the controls, she said the game was “magical.”
Awesome! That’s totally what we were going for!
What would you say are the core beliefs that most motivate you?
I think for me, the thing that really gets me out of bed in the morning is that I wish the world were a little bit stranger. I feel like, in how I interact with the world, this isn’t so much my core belief so much as what drives me to create things. I feel like as people we get very locked into thinking about the world in human terms and along very comfortable grooves where we are just like “this is how we have thought about things in the past and this is just how naturally we think about things in the future.” Like when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail–that sort of idea. I think that is broadly true of the way most people think about things most of the time and so I see my responsibility as a human being is to try and help people look at the world in news ways.
So in The Unfinished Swan, you know, one of the things I think videogames do really well is getting into a primal level of our brains and rewiring how we take in information and process them in a mechanical way. For instance, Grand Theft Auto really did a great job of like getting into my subconscious. After I played the game, I would walk around and see a motorcycle on the street and I would think, “I could take that and like ride around and do whatever.” Its not that I really want to steal it but just the idea of being able to get in and change the world a bit is really intriguing.
And in Unfinished Swan, I think we are doing something similar–we wanted to get in and change how people think about the world a little bit, only, hopefully a little more positively [than GTA]. Like the way you think about space is totally challenged at the beginning of the game. Its amazing that people can derive so much information from a few splats on a screen. I think it is amazing how adept the brain is at processing tiny little bits of information. To get back to the question, I think the world is profoundly stranger than we can possibly imagine and any time that we think we can really understand anything that is just a thin veneer of a pudding skin on this crazy bit of chaos that is underneath that. But at the same time, there is something heartwarming about the world.
Personally, I view the world as a lot of chaotic noise and crazy stuff that we can never hope to understand. I think a lot about the way that animals view the world versus our view of the world. Like think about our view of the world as this orbiting body around the sun and a universe that is about 8 billion years old and whatever else we think we know about it, versus a cat’s really circumscribed view of reality. A cat lives in a house and someone feeds it, and it poops in a box and its not hard to imagine that there is another being that could be like a step removed from that. And it’s interesting how crazy the cat’s explanation of reality would be compared to us, who seem to know everything.
I guess I am being kinda abstract, but the world seems very random and strange. But inside of that, it is not necessarily that it is a hostile place. We as people create a lot of the most interesting and valuable things that are out there. And with Unfinished Swan, through the lens of artistic creation, we are able to create something with which we can comfort one another and give a little bit of meaning to something that is otherwise amorphous.
Something that is otherwise meaningless?
Yeah. I think our artistic creations are a way of kind of injecting a bit of meaning into a world that can feel inconvenient.
Do you have a role model?
Uh … I suppose Jim Henson, maybe, if I was to pick one person. I really like that he created so many different worlds with a lot of different tones and really bizarre characters that ultimately feel really … like I have a lot of empathy for them, even for the monsters. I feel a connection to them that is really fascinating.
I am also really motivated by the surrealists in general. And I think Henson, not that he was really a surrealist, but creating something that is so unfamiliar but at the same time provides a way for us to learn about the things around us in our daily lives is a fantastic outlook. I love his artistic sensibilities. It is such a shame that he randomly got pneumonia at forty-something and is no longer with us.
How do you feel about games dealing with religious or philosophical issues?
I think religious issues are pretty tough. I can’t really think of any games that have done a satisfying job of that because people bring so much into it already, obviously. It is really hard and it’s something that we struggle with as game designers and developers now in the context of talks at GDC. If you look at something like Journey or Dear Esther, or Amnesia, they are really rich experiences, but not a lot of gameplay.
Some people have described those games as spiritual experiences.
Yeah and I don’t want to critique them because I think they are really interesting and valuable experiences, but people critique them because there is not a lot of challenge, there is not a lot of traditional gameplay and I think religion is kind of in a similar boat. Gameplay is something that is very powerful, but it is something that can kind of overwhelm everything else involved. In terms of spiritual stuff, I think that games can do a fantastic job of putting you into places that have kind of spiritually resonate experiences, particularly because, if the game is constructed in the right way, players can have a really deep connection with the world. So you can have these things that feel very personal to you. And I think more meaningful spiritual experiences are really personal things. It’s something that you can’t even necessarily explain to someone else because it is an experience that you had. In a way, games can similarly give us very unique play experiences.
With Unfinished Swan something we tried to do was to make you feel very small and to me that is kind of a spiritual thing. In the game you are a tiny child and there a vast world before you, but that is not too dissimilar to you being a small person in a vast unknown universe. That is at the heart of the most spiritual experiences: recognizing your own limitations.
As someone who has written about religion in games quite a bit, I have noticed that games address religion far more than spirituality. I think maybe because it is easier from a narrative standpoint. For instance, Bioshock Infinite is about religion and a lot of Bioware games deal with the topic of religion, but it would be interesting to see more games attempt to give us “spiritual” experiences.
Yeah it’s a hugely powerful thing. I think also to some extent, game developers don’t tend to be super religious people, so in the same way that historically game developers don’t tend to be women and so there weren’t a lot of strong, “interesting” female protagonists. Hopefully that is something that will change a little bit as game development gets democratized a bit, it’s not just a bunch of nerds in basements, and it is more regular folks with different viewpoints. I would love to play a game aimed at someone outside the Judeo-Christian faith or traditional monotheistic faiths. I would love to play a game from people of religions I know nothing about.
Would you describe yourself as a religious or spiritual person?
I would say I am not religious. I was raised Lutheran and went to church every Sunday more or less until I was about 15. After that I more or less parted ways with the church. I don’t think I would describe myself as a spiritual person either, but I think a lot about my relationship to the universe. I think a lot about myself, not just in the context of California or Washington or the United States, but as a citizen of the universe and what that is and how that fits in.
I was going to ask if you attend a religious gathering of any sort, but I suppose you don’t?
Actually, I tend to go to Seder once a year. I have a roommate from Craigslist who is a 70 year old Jewish woman who invites me to her family’s Sader meal once a year. It’s an awesome experience. It’s actually very game like. It has a set of rules and rituals, and there are games for the kids.
There is the hiding the afikomen and the kids finding it, and I think that’s a really awesome thing for people to do. One of the things I really miss about religion is seeing the place that religion played for my parents in their lives as a way for adults to get together and socialize in a noncommercial atmosphere. I guess sports can do that to some extent, but I think religion is a hugely powerful and positive thing where people can get together and share experiences together. A huge part of my growing up was all the friends that we had through the church. I hope in some ways games can provide an outlet for some of that.
You see some of that at conventions like GDC and PAX, I think.
Yeah, ours is a medium for exchange. Journey is certainly an example of that. Like two people being able to have an experience together that is not commercially mediated is fantastic.
My wife and I often say that we could live anywhere so long as we had good community at our church.
Yeah it is so hard to find community in modern America. I don’t think I have ever really known any of the neighbors in any of the places that I lived. Like in the old days you just had so many things that would bind you together from a practical standpoint of needing to rely on people more, but now we are much more disconnected. Hopefully that is something that games can start to fill in as well. I think to some extent they have, but their relationships are a bit shallower–like “let’s play deathmatch for 10 minutes” rather than “let’s form a bond and get to know each other over the years.” Certainly church has that sort of domination in terms of having a long relationship with people and being able to watch them grow.